I’ve pictured myself running on a beach, my steps straight, smooth and dry. The reality? Not so much.
But that, chicos y chicas, was the only downside to what was otherwise a fun, well-organized race on Grand Island, north of Munising in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Put on by Great Lakes Endurance, Grand Island is host to a 50K plus full and half marathons through mostly packed sand or dirt trails with Lake Superior vistas, and even a peak at the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore.
Well-worth convincing la familia to come up to the U.P. for a week in July, the race has been on my radar for a couple of years. This Puerto Rican was drawn by the promise of riding a ferry across water to run on an island.
Registration was easily done online with clear instructions and regular email communication as we got closer to race day. There was a lot of information, for example, on packet pickup, race day etiquette (zero trash) and transportation.
Packet pickup was held at the Munising Holiday Inn, on the west side of Munising. There was plenty of parking, a nice welcome sign, and enough people working that registration was very quick. Hours were from 3-9 p.m.
Bibs were chipped; each race had its own color; and plenty of safety pins were provided.
My two boys and I took advantage of the timeline to take a Pictured Rocks boat tour for about two-and-a-half hours. These rock formations are a must-see if you’re making the trip for this race.
After our adventure and packet pickup, we picked up pizzas at the aptly named Pictured Rocks Pizza also on the main drag in town, this time on the east side. The place was packed but offered outside and indoor seating, a friendly staff and delicious pizzas and bread sticks. We may have dug in immediately upon arriving back at our Jeep. Don’t judge.
Transportation to the island
Race morning also ran very smoothly. I parked at Munising High School where a shuttle quickly took us bleary eyed runners to the ferry. We didn’t have to wait for either the bus or the small boat (there were about 30 of us) and they had ferries running the route fairly often. There were no portable toilets at the high school, but the ferry dock had a couple of easily accessible pit toilets.
Upon arriving at Grand Island, we got to wait for an hour-and-a-half, spending at least 30 minutes in line to use the toilets. The ultra crowd was already gone by the time we arrived; marathoners lined up about an hour before us half-marathoners.
Instructions were shared by bullhorn several times, including what color flag to follow and where (blue, to the right of the trail for the half).
And we’re off
I’m estimating about 250 half marathoners, if not 300, set off right at 8 a.m. Like most trail races, the pack was orderly and friendly.
Even us back-of-the-packers got a few cheers as we crossed the timing matts.
The first few miles were wooded, packed sand or dirt. I wouldn’t call it terribly technical, but a bit hilly.
And then, the beach.
Chariots of Fire music
Somewhere around mile 4, we were directed to the Lake Superior shoreline. I tried to avoid getting my shoes wet. Don’t. It’s impossible.
The sand is angled so that the dry stuff was uneven and hard to run on. One woman managed to go to the very top of the dry sand, but she walked the whole way and she looked like she was struggling.
The rest of us sucked it up and ran on the water where the sand was packed and a bit easier. Even so, I found that mile to be the hardest of the whole race by far. The view was breathtaking, with crystal-clear water and blue skies, and a portion of the Pictured Rocks in the background.
As soon as we were done with the beach portion, a couple of runners switched their socks at a conveniently placed bench. I figured everyone’s socks would get soaked immediately anyway and didn’t think much of it.
Were I to do this race again, I would take a moment to take the sand out of my shoes and switch socks. I had to stop later anyway because the sand had bunched up under my arch and felt like a stone.
Why we all signed up for this particular race
The rest of the race was also beautiful. Around mile seven, I started to see some of the ultra and full-marathon runners heading toward the finish line.
I stuck with my 4:1 run/walk intervals, so I took a lot of photos. The terrain was relatively smooth, with some rocks and a tree root here or there. Mosquitoes were out in full force, so make sure to use bug spray and to bring some with you (I bought the wipes and was glad to have them).
Two aid stations were well staffed and offered water and Honey Stinger for fuel. I didn’t stop, so I’m not sure what else they had nor how efficient they were at filling up the required water bottles or hydration system bladders (remember: no trash).
There were friends and family members waiting at the finish line and were kind enough to cheer people as we came in. A race volunteer immediately handed me a receipt with my time and placement, then directed me to get my medal. Like the Two Hearted Trail Half Marathon medal, it’s made of wood and hung with yarn.
Runners who placed at the top of their age group got gorgeous, colorful glass medallions.
A bunch of folks spent some time by the dock, swimming or at least getting some of the grime off in the lake. The after-race treats were delicious, especially raspberry and oatmeal bars that were to die for. There were also bananas, cherry juice and some other energy bars. The race description said there would be watermelon, but they ran out.
I would definitely do this friendly, fun race. Like any good destination race, we took advantage of the timing and spent the week sightseeing around the U.P. Hope to bring some friends with me next time!
What’s your favorite destination race? What makes for a good trail race? How do you feel about running on sand? (Click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)